Ray Harryhausen, 1920-2013
Raymond “Ray” Harryhausen (June 29, 1920 – May 7, 2013) died today at age 92, leaving behind a legacy of pioneering special effects work and a filmography that has deeply influenced writers, artists, and filmmakers for generations.
Dubbed by Starlog as “The Man Who Work Miracles”, he was one of the most influential movie makers who was himself inspired by Willis O’Brien’s stop-motion animation in King Kong. He took O’Brien’s efforts and improved upon them, branding it as Dynamation.
Although he resided in England for the majority of his adult life, Harryhausen was born in Los Angeles. King Kong was the spark that set him on a course towards a career in film, meticulously creating miniatures that could be photographed a few frames at a time followed by the tiniest of movements, followed by more frames, until the model appeared to move across the screen. This was done with artistry and engineering know-how long before Industrial Light and Magic brought computer-aided technology to the process.
When the legend met the student, they bonded quickly and Harryhausen was given pointers to improve his work through trial, error and art classes. Along the way, he befriended fellow Angelino Ray Bradbury, just at the beginning of his fantastic career. Little wonder they both belonged to Forrest J. Ackerman’s Science Fiction League, linking the trio until their deaths.
Like O’Brien, Harryhausen strove for realistic creatures to confront the live-action performers, drawing inspiration from the myths and legends familiar to people the world over. He began his professional career with George Pal, contributing to his series of Puppetoon shorts. World War II intervened and Harryhausen was assigned to the Special Services Division, continuing to make movies. This proved an invaluable tutorial and lab for experimenting with his animation techniques.
Soon after leaving the service, he embarked on the first of several dream projects that would dot his career. He did some demo footage based on H. G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds but the project never materialized. Instead, he was hired to work on Mighty Joe Young, letting the master and student work together and earning them earning them the Academy Award in 1949 for best Special Effects. Harryhausen was hired solo to provide the effects to The Monster from Beneath the Sea. When a connection was made to Bradbury’s story “The Fog Horn”, the film was renamed The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, the story’s original title and was released to acclaim and box office success in 1953.
By this point, Harryhausen had developed the technique that saw him shoot the actors then animate the creatures, splitting the image between foreground and background, the latter becoming a rear projection with the models before it. With mattes, the images were combined and Dynamation was born, although it was named later.
Harryhausen continued to evolve his work and then made the leap to color with The 7th Voyage of Sinbad in 1958. By now, he was partnered with producer Charles H. Schneer – beginning with It Came from Beneath the Sea (1955) — who helped him perfect the shift to color, experimenting with different stocks until the look was right. Given the requirements of the models, Harryhausen became far more intimately involved in the story than most effects men ever did, ultimately co-directing many features although Director’s Guild rules denied him his proper credits.
The Sinbad series of films found an eager audience in the later 1950s and early 1960s as all things fantastic played well on screen. It offered adults, and their children, a wholesome escape from the Cold War tensions. It wasn’t all fantasy and monsters as Harryhausen and Schneer also produced several science fiction tales, such as 20 Million Miles to Earth (1957).
They continued to produce works that stretched the imagination until 1963 and what is considered by many his finest outing, Jason and the Argonauts. Here, there was the amazing complex battle with the skeletons and the multi-armed gorgon. Little wonder that Tom Hanks, who first saw it as a kid, proclaimed years later, “Some people say Casablanca or Citizen Kane…I say Jason and the Argonauts is the greatest film ever made!”
Despite this pinnacle of technological achievement, tastes were changing and he endured a series of box office failures. After losing his contract with Columbia Pictures, he wound up in England working for Hammer Films’ One Million Years B.C. (1967). That film’s success allowed him to on to make The Valley of Gwangi (1969), a labor of love considering it was O’Brien’s unrealized dream project.
Harryhausen endured a lean 1970s, kept in the minds of readers thanks to Ackerman’s devoted retrospectives in the pages of Famous Monsters of Filmland. Finally, thanks to Star Wars, inspired in part by Harryhausen’s work, the appetite for fantasy was back and he revived Sinbad beginning with The Golden Voyage of Sinbad. This and its sequel Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger were suddenly feeling dated and jokey, not at all what modern day audiences found palatable.
He put everything he had into his Greek myth opus Clash of the Titans (1981), working with protégés Steve Archer Jim Danforth, much as O’Brien mentored him. With a star-studded cast and the addition of the impressive Kraken, the film was a last hurrah but for audiences now used to computer-generated effects, it looked and felt dated. Harryhausen was effectively retired, like it or not.
Thankfully, his work was rediscovered with h advent of magazines like Starlog, the rise of cable television, and a new generation of fans enchanted by his creations. As a result, he released several lovely books about his career: Film Fantasy Scrapbook, An Animated Life, The Art of Ray Harryhausen, and A Century of Model Animation. With the arrival of home video, Harryhausen personally oversaw the restoration and transfer of his films, from VHS to Blu-ray.
Harryhausen relocated to England in 1960 and in 2005, donated his archive, some 50,000 pieces, to the National Media Museum in Bradford, England. His efforts have not gone unrewarded such as being given the Gordon E. Sawyer Award for “technological contributions [which] have brought credit to the industry” in 1992, handed to him by Bradbury, and a special BAFTA award, delivered by director Peter Jackson.
Hollywood didn’t forget Harryhausen either, with Columbia’s parent, Sony, naming their main screening theater after him and his receipt of a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
His influence and spirit will live on for generations to come thanks to his films being available to enjoy and the generations of filmmakers he inspired.